How to Sing the National Anthem at an NFL Game

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One minute, 41 seconds. That was the over-under on Carrie Underwood's national anthem performance at this year's Super Bowl. Underwood ended up belting out a rendition that clocked in at one minute, 50 seconds, eight of which were dedicated to the word "brave." Underwood should be commended for her brevity. In 2008, it took Jordin Sparks 1:55 to make her way through Francis Scott Key's account of the Fort McHenry bombardment. According to Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman—who is something of an expert on this subject—Beyonce Knowles' performance at the 2004 game held the unofficial record for longest Super Bowl anthem at 2:01, a number Jennifer Hudson shattered in 2009 with a 2:13 rendition that spanned multiple time zones and weather patterns.


At 1:59, Colbie Calliat's performance before the Saints-Vikings game last Thursday lacked the symbolic heft of the Knowles and Hudson's two-minute-plus stemwinders. Whatever Calliat lacked in the vocal filibustering department, she made up for with the sheer curiousness of her interpretation. In her hands, Key's blood-soaked lyrics (those bombs weren't metaphorical) formed the backbone of what sounded like a particularly mediocre alt-country song. In case the spirit of mellowness was lost on anyone, an ambiguously bearded guitar player was on hand to pluck notes at random.


Calliat, Underwood, Sparks, Knowles, Hudson and, indeed, almost every person who performs the song before a group larger than 12, has fallen into the particularly American trap of assuming everything one does is inherently fascinating. This quality is actually more defensible in celebrities, since the entire experience of being famous in America is one long two-minute version of a song that should take 90 seconds. (I know. I timed myself on the way to work one day this week.) It takes what should be a moment of contemplation and commemoration and turns it into someone's big break. It would be imminently more satisfying if we adhered to the junior-high basketball game policy of piping in an old public domain recording from the Naval Academy Band.

There are 15 professional football games today, which means 15 chances for singers to either honor or disgrace our nation with their renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Please, let's just try to stop screwing this one up. Unless you happen to inhabit a micronation of one, national anthem is supposed to stand for collective, not individual greatness. Perform it, but please stop turning it into a performance.

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Ray Gustini is the author of Lucky Town, a forthcoming book about sports in Washington, D.C. He is a former staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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